On a frigid September morning in Mkumbi, a remote village in the Pondoland region of the Eastern Cape, 63-year-old Sizane Nompethu rose at dawn and walked at a brisk pace down a rocky path to work her family's small plot of land, just as she had every day since she was 15.“I am old and you can see this is very hard work,” Nompethu told GroundUp as she cut through swathes of tall green marijuana shrubs with a small, curved knife, quickly amassing dense bunches that she cradled in her free arm. “But this is all we have. It’s how we raise our children.”No one knows with confidence how many small-scale cannabis farmers there are in South Africa, but the number is large: one organisation estimates 900,000. Millions of people probably depend on income from cannabis. Here in Pondoland, these growers have been cultivating the plant for over 200 years, with most of their harvest in more contemporary times bound for Cape Town townships and taxi ranks, as well as other South African cities.Pondoland is among South Africa’s least economically developed regions, and in Nompethu’s village, as in many of the rural settlements that punctuate this landscape of rugged, verdant mountains and plunging valleys, dagga is the only cash crop in a subsistence economy.
At a recent community meeting in another nearby village called Mantlaneni, scores of growers echoed such fears. They also reaffirmed Gumbe’s assertion that prices had fallen since the 2018 court ruling.“It used to be R1,000 for one 20-litre container,” said Beecee Nombanga, a local community leader. “Now it is about R500. There is always some fluctuation of prices depending on the season, but this is a bigger drop than usual, because now there is more supply than demand.”Local farmers also claim that there has been an increase in police activity and arrests and seizures on regular cannabis transport routes out of Pondoland in recent months, further affecting demand.Novakalela Mbuzeni, 52, told GroundUp that her son had been arrested transporting cannabis from the village to Durban in November last year and is now serving a four-year prison sentence in Maritzburg.
“He was just trying to provide for his family,” Mbuzeni said. “The government must also legalise selling [for recreational use] so that they can release my son and we can work freely.”Currently, the only route into the legal cannabis trade in South Africa is by obtaining a South African Products Regulatory Authority licence for medical marijuana cultivation, a booming industry that could be worth up to R27bn in South Africa by 2023, according to consultancy group Prohibition Partners.But for rural farmers, there are considerable barriers to entry, including an extensive list of quality control measures and infrastructure that needs to be implemented, accompanied by prohibitive costs.According to Nico Kriek, managing director at the Cannabis Compliance Bureau, it can cost up to R6m to set up a facility to the required licensing standards and prepare a licence application; the application fee alone is approximately R20,000.The current regulations also forbid anyone with a criminal record for any form of drug-related offence from applying for a licence, which further restricts a number of small-scale growers.In recent months, Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane has frequently reiterated the importance of ensuring that small-scale cannabis farmers benefit from the commercialisation of the plant. At a cannabis stakeholder engagement in East London in August, Mabuyane said that local government saw the potential to develop a “thriving, legal cannabis economy in our province to create jobs for our people,” but that the rules “for massive economic production are still unclear”.“We must overcome this hurdle speedily so that legislation around cultivation can be clear to everyone concerned, particularly the police and communal farmers,” Mabuyane added.
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